January 24, 2023

“A truly educated person continues to learn. This is one of the foundational elements that I learned at Century, and it taught me how to not get stuck in my career.”

This philosophy has served Mindy Johnson, Century College Alum of the Year (2021), throughout her life. Her intellectual curiosity, drive to continuously learn, and her hard work have brought her much-deserved recognition.

An award-winning author, filmmaker, researcher, musician, playwright, public speaker, storyteller, and scholar, Mindy grew up in White Bear Lake, and is part of a Century College family—her mother was one of the College’s first Nursing School graduates.

In 1982, she graduated from Lakewood (now Century College) with a Liberal Arts degree, and transferred to Metro State. Following graduation, she headed to New York and worked in television production for a couple of years.

She realized she needed more education to further her career, so she applied to and was accepted into the prestigious American Film Institute in Los Angeles, where she currently lives.

Shining a Light on Untold Stories

Among her many achievements, Mindy is an expert in the history of women in animation and teaches the subject at California Institute for the Arts and Drexel University. A born storyteller, Mindy loves to cast light on those who have been hidden from the spotlight.

While working for Disney Publicity (in the Home Entertainment Division) early in her career, she was looking for new ways to get younger audiences interested in classic animation features.

“I got to learn many of the backstories on how production went, and learn about the remaining Disney legends, who never really got the spotlight at the time,” Mindy remembers. “It was a great joy to work with these remarkable, talented artists, and, through the media, have a chance to shine the light on them and their work.”   With an original animation production cel from Walt Disney's Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs. Ó...

Mindy looked for a different way to tell the story of Disney’s version of Tinker Bell. She researched how her story changed from her depiction in the J.M Barrie play, Peter Pan, to her character development during the animation process. Her subsequent book, Tinker Bell: An Evolution, includes never-before-seen artwork from the Disney Animation Library. 

Among Mindy’s other groundbreaking works is Ink and Paint, The Women of Walt Disney’s Animation. This meticulously researched book chronicles the female story specialists who attended Disney’s first animation-training program for women. “Women have always been in the room, and we need to include them in order to get the full history,” Mindy notes. “I don’t shy away from the big stories, but there are a lot of little stories to be telling, too.”

A New Tale with a Minnesota Twist: Bessie Mae Kelley

Thanks to the support gained from receiving the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences Film Scholar Award, Mindy is working on her current research project, which involves shining a light on a (previously) forgotten pioneer in animation history: Bessie Mae Kelley.

Mindy learned about Bessie from an article in a vaudeville journal. and later found her in a series of sketches of various animators.  She was assumed to be a cleaning woman or a secretary: however, Mindy knew better.

She followed her intuition and thought it just might be Bessie, whose work is the earliest surviving hand drawn animation, animated and directed by a woman. After doing extensive research on her life and work, Mindy also found an interesting Minnesota connection while on a visit back to White Bear Lake.

Mindy discovered that Bessie had married a man from Wabasha, and spent her later years in the state. In fact, her husband had built a cabin just down the road from Mindy’s mother’s home in White Bear.  She connected with Bessie’s remaining relatives in Minnesota, and was eventually able to find some of her original and very rare artwork through her grand-nephew, who lived in San Diego.

In December, she shared her research and two films of Ms. Kelley’s work at a sold-out presentation at LA’s Academy Museum of Motion Pictures.  Just recently, Mindy received the Annie award, an Oscar-level award for her contributions to the animation industry.

Mindy is currently working on a film and forthcoming book about Bessie Mae Kelly and other early women of animation.

The Importance of Community and Collaboration

Looking back, when Mindy reflects on the role that the arts have played in her life, she sees the origins of who she is today in her Lakewood (Century College) transcripts. “It was the genesis of what I do today—in the early film classes, the photography classes, the music and the arts—the painting,” Mindy reminisces. “Lakewood (Century College) was a launching pad for me–it was a perfect place to dabble, and to try a broad range of things. College is about exploring.”

Early in her college career, Mindy dreamed of being a musician—she played trombone, tuba, and harp, and she played in the College’s band, where she learned the importance of community. “Doc Zdechlik, the renowned band leader, cultivated that with the Band. We learned that working with any creative form can be collaborating, but also isolating, especially as a writer, so it’s important to remember that whatever you’re creating—whether musically or otherwise, is part of the whole,” Mindy says. “It was great having people to connect with, who had your back.”

She adds “I blossomed socially at Lakewood (Century College), having a place where I could shine a bit, and I stood out as the only female tuba player in the orchestra. We did band trips together, and this idea of community and collaboration were instilled in me.

“In fact, the collaboration skills I learned there served me well when I was part of the American Film Institute, coming in as a musician and filmmaker—these were skills learned sitting in the back of an orchestra at the College. We did small sectionals, we would isolate out, then come together and do ensemble work.  It’s not about you but how you blend in with the larger picture and what you bring to it, and add to it, what your unique talents bring to the whole.”

Advice for New Students

As an academic and teacher, Mindy offers the following advice for new students:

“College is about exploring. Use this time to try different things. Find something that gets you excited. Dabble, explore, and participate in community events. Use Century College as a resource to come in and learn.”

For those who are non-traditional or older learners, Mindy offers this wise counsel, “Share your thoughts and comments, especially with younger students—life experience is so valuable. There’s nothing to be fearful about in pursuing more education.”

“Century College will meet you where you are, especially if you are hungry to learn. How great is that? It’s an incredible opportunity!”

Follow Mindy and her work here.